Sound designer Suren G: The majority of Karnan's sound was recorded on location
Sound designer Suren G discusses his creative contribution in shaping the soundscape of Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan, arguably the best film of this year
We discern sound mixer and designer Suren G’s work in Karnan even before we see the first frame of the film, as the droning vehicles, screeching insects, chirping birds, and a gusty wind welcomes us into Podiyankulam, the setting of the Mari Selvaraj directorial. Immediately evident is this sound designer’s work, whose filmography ranges from the tender 96 to the roaring Kaala, from the calming Peranbu to the loud Darbar. “The starting point of a script tends to be the description of a setting, be it a village or a city. My job as a sound designer is to ensure that the soundscape breathes life into the world created by the writer and director,” says Suren, who made his foray into the film industry with Vanakkam Chennai in 2013.
“Sound plays a bigger role than the average viewer realises. It can console you or create discomfort; its effect is on the subconscious,” says Suren, who works with his partner Alagiakoothan in creating soundscapes. The work, he says, begins right from the pre-production, contrary to the popular myth that sound design happens during the post-production phase. “I read a script from a purely aural perspective. For instance, if the script mentions a vehicle in a scene, I start thinking about ways in which I can manipulate the sound layer to enhance the scene, or use it as an agent to seamlessly intercut to the next scene.”
Elaborating on how he underscores the contrast between films like Psycho and Thadam, which take place in a constricted setting, as opposed to, say, Soorarai Pottru or Karnan that thrive on the vastness of its environs, Suren says, “Claustrophobic films like Psycho enable us to toy with regular sounds that would otherwise go unheard in a film. Take, for instance, the ratcheting footsteps of the serial killer as he enters his den in Psycho. Each of his steps can be manipulated to invoke a differing effect by varying audibility and adding more layers. Similarly, working on Andhagaram was a great experience for this reason. Although I work on multiple projects simultaneously, I kept my other projects on hold while working on Andhagaram as it was crucial for me to understand the acoustics of the house Arjun Das’ character lives in. The challenge with bigger films is to ensure that sound design does not overpower the mood of a scene."
Having collaborated with Mari Selvaraj on both Pariyerum Perumal and Karnan, Suren points out that the filmmaker utilises sound to not only authentically represent the hinterlands that form the foundation of his tales, but also to reflect the psyche of his characters. “Pariyerum Perumal is seen through the eyes of an individual and remains focussed on his headspace. The three most chaotic scenes from the film—the assault on Pariyan in the marriage hall, the scene where he gets pushed into a women’s restroom, and his drunk outburst in the classroom—were treated like struggles within his head. The tumults and yells reflect the eruption in his muddled subconscious. In Karnan, on the other hand, the conceptualisation and the central character are different. Unlike Pariyan, Karnan is a rebel hero, and this alters our approach.”
Compared to Pariyerum Perumal, Karnan is a bigger film in scale. Its canvas is broader, conflict louder, and landscape, richer. On bringing an entire village to life through sound, Suren recalls, “From day one, we knew that recreating the world of Karnan in a studio would be an exhaustive effort; we chose instead to record on location. Nearly all of the sound was recorded this way. We stayed at the locations and recorded the sound round the clock to differentiate the sounds of nature from early morning to midnight. From the sounds of vehicles in the opening scene to the grunts of bulls during an action sequence, they were all recorded on location. Also, if you notice, the topography of the village in the film is a mix of greenery and a dustbowl; so, we made sure to capture the changes in ambience of this diverse landscape.”
Suren cites French filmmaker Gasper Noe as a major inspiration, and you can see why, given that the latter, speaking about his 2002 film, Irreversible, shared famously that he used sound of a different frequency in order to discomfit all viewers. Karnan’s climactic war sequence creates a similar uncomfortable experience, amplified especially by the unrestrained screams of a woman in labour. Suren explains, “Mari Selvaraj wanted to exaggerate emotional and physical pain during this climax, and going by the reception, I think we have achieved this. Many have said that the cries of the pregnant woman were unbearable; this means that we succeeded,” he says. “Similarly, even in the police station scene in which the elderly men are brutally assaulted, we didn’t tone down the screaming. Typically, in such a scene, characters in the background get muted, but we chose to retain their frightened screams as well. For the war sequence, the efforts of every department—music, editing, and sound mixing—came together beautifully. I don’t think I’ll get to work on something as powerful for a long time to come.”